YAKIMA, Wash. — The United States produces way more apples than Americans eat. This year, even more so.
Washington growers are in the midst of harvesting what may be their second-largest crop ever. Other apple regions of the nation are forecasting bounty as well.
Exports are more important than ever and that means ironing out a trade dispute with China, a growing market for U.S. fruit.
“In the long run, we simply need the Chinese market with the crop sizes we have right now,” said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council. “Our fruit has to go somewhere.”
That’s why the state’s fruit-producing associations are lobbying U.S. government agricultural safety officials to convince Chinese inspectors to reopen their doors to Washington’s iconic apple varieties and allow new ones.
Their case is far from simple.
China first opened its ports in 1993 to Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples from Washington. In 2007, however, inspectors began finding evidence of three fungal diseases and ultimately stopped all shipments last summer.
Before Chinese officials reopen the market, they want sanitary measures, such as completely cleaning orchard floors of leaves, twigs and discarded fruit. Experts here say those steps would require hand labor U.S. growers consider prohibitively expensive and wouldn’t help anyway. The diseases spread through splashing water and mostly affect crab apples, used only as a pollinator.
“They’re almost impossible to implement,” said Mike Willett, vice president for scientific affairs at the Horticultural Council, the Yakima-based agency that represents the Northwest fruit industry on national trade and regulatory issues.
In November, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold annual technical talks with their Chinese counterparts in an attempt to find a compromise.
U.S. industry officials claim their fruit is disease-free now, but the challenges go way beyond proving that to the Chinese. International trade is rarely straight forward. Washington’s marquee fruit is just one of many threads in an elaborate tapestry of political give-and-take.
State growers want not only the Red Delicious and Golden trade restored, but market access to even more varieties of apples. China also wants to be able to sell its apples in the United States, a goal that has been stymied over U.S. concerns that Chinese apples will carry their own pests that could harm domestic crops.
But that’s not all. The talks will involve other U.S. crops — citrus, soybeans and potatoes.
And lurking in the background could be anything from environmental concerns to political prisoners to North Korea.
“In trade policy theory, these should be all separate issues,” Schlect said.
Last year, Washington apple growers lucked out.
They produced a state-record 129 million boxes while New York, Michigan and other apple-growing regions in the East suffered a frost that drastically curtailed production.
This year, both sides of the United States are expecting large crops. Washington grower groups are predicting roughly 120 million boxes.
To sell all those apples, Washington exports about 30 percent of its crop each year. Last year, that amounted to 40 million boxes of apples, each roughly 42 pounds, sent to other countries.
The apple commission spends more than $6 million each year touting Washington fruit with promotions such as grocery store samples in Mexico, open-air market vendors in Indonesia and professional cricket team sponsorships in India.
China is just one of 60 destinations and not even the largest by a long shot.
In the 2006-07 crop year, Washington growers shipped about 1 million boxes directly to mainland China. That dropped gradually as Chinese officials detected the diseases, dropping to 415,000 in 2011.
By contrast, Hong Kong imported 2.1 million boxes, Taiwan 2.4 million and Mexico, the United States’ largest market, a whopping 13.7 million.
“We’re concerned about keeping all the markets open and readily available for easy access,” said John Borton, vice president and secretary of Borton Fruit, a fourth-generation family farm and warehouse corporation headquartered in Yakima.
But China is the world’s fastest-growing economy with a swelling middle class that can afford delicacies, such as imported fruit. For years, apples of all varieties have made their way unregulated and uncounted into mainland China from Hong Kong to Taiwan in a brazen “gray” market, said Todd Fryhover, president of the apple commission.
“We want full access for all varieties,” he said. “That way this gray market channel no longer exists.”
China will want access in return and industry officials say Washington can handle the competition.
“We’re willing to go head-to-head with China,” Fryhover said.
Washington apples have been competing with Chinese-produced fruit for years in Canada and other nations, with good results so far, officials said. And the United States already allows imports of apples from other nations such as Chile.
“They just can’t compete with us on the flavor,” said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
Growers aren’t unanimous about China though.
“I have mixed emotions,” Borton said.
For one thing, China could drive prices down by sheer volume. The country grows more than half of the world’s apples.
U.S. growers also worry about new diseases and pests spreading to their shores, while costs of domestic production go up under ever-tightening food safety laws.
In 2011, President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Food Safety and Modernization Act, which mandates sweeping changes to irrigation water testing, harvesting techniques and storage. New rules are still being implemented.
“I think it’s pretty damn safe now,” Valicoff said of American fruit.
He doesn’t have the same confidence in China’s.
“Who’s to say what they have going on?” Valicoff said.
Editor’s note: This report has been updated to correct the name of the Northwest Horticultural Council and the spelling of the last name of its president Chris Schlect.
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